The 52 Places Traveler: Feeling Like an Insider, Finally, in Spain
Places 28 and 29 on the New York Times‘ “The 52 Places Traveler” Journey
All it took was crossing a bridge after dark. Throughout the day, as the July sun and 95-degree temperatures bore down on Seville, I had wondered where all the nontourists were. That evening, I found my answer in Triana, a working-class barrio, drinking tinto de verano (red wine mixed with lemon soda) amid a sea of revelers. For centuries, Triana was its own city, best known as a haven for Gypsies, flamenco dancers and bullfighters relegated to living outside Seville’s walls and far from the city’s royalty. I left at 2 a.m. and in famous, admirable Spanish fashion, most of the crowd had just started their nights.
My visit to Seville, the exquisite capital of southern Spain’s Andalusian region, happened to coincide with La Velá de Santiago y Santa Ana, Triana’s massive five-day religious festival. Musicians in medieval costume descended stairs in front of me. The guitarist smoked a cigarette as he strummed. A gray-haired couple danced flamenco beside him. Seemingly out of nowhere came a handsome bearded fellow in street clothes, belting out plaintive songs with such fervor and vibrato that I thought for sure he was a professional. He’s not, he told me later; he just happened to be passing by and knew the musicians because they’re all from the same nearby small town.
Traveling the world for the past seven months, I’ve often been aware of my outsider status. But in Spain, where I also visited the northern wine region of Ribera del Duero, I just felt like myself. Having a facility with the language helped. But also “those weird hours,” as an early-bird American friend of mine put it, where no one even starts thinking about dinner until 9 p.m., are perfectly suited to my natural rhythms.
Here I could get all my work done for the day, head out when I felt like it, eat at three different tapas places and wander around packed streets late at night freed of the emotional burden of constantly being on edge about my safety that often comes with being a woman traveling alone. And yet, even with that sense of comfort, I was surprised how often Spain surprised me.
The Spanish Stevie Nicks
I couldn’t stop thinking about the culture of generosity in Triana. So I went back to La Velá for the second night in a row, this time in the company of Felix Guerra, a 58-year-old father of three I had met when he was dancing with those musicians in medieval costume; like them, he is from the small town of Cortegana.
It was my last night in Seville, and I had my heart set on going to one of the storied flamenco clubs I’d read about. Mr. Guerra, who spoke no English, gently suggested those could wait. A “muy famosa” singer and Seville native, María de la Colina, was giving a free outdoor concert to close La Velá. She’s in her 60s, he said, and an appearance like this was such a rare treat we’d be fools to miss it.
What followed was beyond anything I could have imagined. A husky-voiced diva swept onto the stage in a sheer pink caftan, to the cheers of hundreds of adoring fans. It was like seeing Stevie Nicks for the first time, but in Spanish and Technicolor. Two young dancers, a man in black and white and a woman in skintight red ruffles, punctuated her songs with dramatic flamenco.
But the real excitement came when the woman dancer exited and the man, dripping in sweat, dark chest hair bursting out of the unbuttoned collar of his white shirt, stomped his feet passionately for María de la Colina, a woman some 40 years his senior.
“It’s too much!” said my friend Shayla Harris, a filmmaker who came to visit for a few days. It became our motto, repeated every time we took a turn through the tiny, colorful, twisty cobblestone streets of Seville’s old town, which we couldn’t stop photographing. Wrong turns usually begot more wrong turns: A gate of intricate Moorish grillwork might reveal a courtyard filled with fountains and colorful tiles and tropical plants; walking around a red and yellow building might lead to a block full of blues and greens. Getting lost was the point.
That “too much” feeling had actually begun with our boutique hotel Palacio Pinello. My Times researcher, Justin Sablich, flagged it for me because it was central and reasonably priced. But it turned out to be a restored palace from the 15th century with its stone columns and elaborate wooden ceilings intact, plus an elegant indoor, marble-floored courtyard where we ate breakfast under a skylight. The original palace door, a beautiful slab of painted wood, was encased in glass just outside our room, which had a modest footprint and 20-foot ceilings.
Fellow photo hounds can gorge on the visual feast of Plaza de España, a semicircular, architectural extravaganza about the size of 10 American football fields built for a world’s fair in 1929. Our favorite feature was the 48 elaborately tiled benches, each representing a province in Spain.
The incredible Moorish palace, Real Alcázar, with its water gardens, can’t be missed (“I feel like I’m in Dorne!” I kept thinking, before learning that indeed, “Game of Thrones” used it as the shooting location for the seat of the desert-ruling House of Martell.) But it was also so overwhelming to visit in the heat that I needed about five hours of recovery time. I would suggest pairing it with a stroll through the lush gardens of the more modest Placio de las Dueñas across town, which gives a sense of how the city’s ruling class once lived.
All of Seville’s many twisty roads eventually seem to lead to La Giralda, the Moorish bell tower (with Renaissance touches) attached to the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe. Should you ever get lost, you can follow its looming presence, like an urban North Star.
Of Tiny Meals and Cooling Rooftops
An alternative to losing your body mass in sweat at a tourist attraction is to wait out the heat at a rooftop hotel bar (try EME, Pura Vida Terrazaand Hotel Inglaterra), or indulging in the city’s famous tapas. Many restaurants have installed mist-making machines, like farming sprinkler systems, and kindly spritz cool mist on you at outdoor tables. I was also a fan of the city’s considerate practice of draping huge pieces of fabric over its streets to create more shade.
My record might have been five tapas bars in a day, with a gazpacho or its thicker sister soup, salmorejo, at nearly every one of them. (All were delicious.) Highlights included exceptional risotto and papas bravas at the hipster-ish El Pintón; the atmosphere at Las Teresas, with its cluttered walls and row of hanging jamón ibérico; churros with melted chocolate at century-old Bar El Comercio; all the classics at La Azotea; Asian-inspired dishes at La Bartola; and the entire experience at El Rinconcillo, the oldest bar in the city, established in 1670, where barmen in black and white uniforms add up your bill in chalk on the counter in front of you. Don’t pass on the spinach with garbanzos, deceptively simple and good enough to eat two.
RIBERA DEL DUERO
Truth in Wine
Before seeing Ribera del Duero’s name on the 52 Places list, I can’t say I’d ever heard of their wines; I’m guessing the average American wine drinker would say the same.
Still, five days of wine-tasting my way through the Spanish countryside was something I was very excited to do. I started in Valladolid, the charming capital of Spain’s vast Castilla y Léon region, about a two-hour drive northwest of Madrid. Then I signed up for a full-day small-group tour with Wine Tourism Spain: 220 euros (about $256) to visit three wineries. I was skeptical because none of the places we were headed were names that had come up in my research — which turned out to be the point. By the end of a great, tipsy day with a family of four from Colombia and an introduction to distinct wines I never would have found on my own, I felt spoiled for all subsequent tours.
“Ribera del Duero is something we invented. It’s not a real region or a city. It just means, ‘by the banks of the Duero River,’” our wonderful guide, Pablo Gonzáles-Calvo, told us as he drove the van. (He’s a winemaker himself, and an export manager for two new wineries, Barcolobo and Garmón Continental, that I later tried — big thumbs up.) Back in the 1980s, he explained, a group of around 10 winemakers near the Duero decided they had to find a way to compete with Rioja — a region I hadheard of — in the international marketplace. They needed to band together under a single name and denominación de origen (similar to a French appellation).
Wineries would be allowed to put Ribera del Duero on their labels only if they were within certain geographic boundaries and followed strict rules, the most important, that the wines be 75 percent tempranillo. The denomination now includes 270 wineries. There are also plenty of others within those geographic boundaries who decided they didn’t want to follow the rules and don’t use the Ribera name, but are very much worth trying. For example, Mr. Gonzáles-Calvo said, a winemaker named Mariano Garcia, who’d crafted his vintages at Ribera del Duero’s renowned Vega Sicilia for 30 years, left to start a winery called Bodegas Mauro where he could experiment. Mauro’s wines are labeled “Castilla y Léon.” From my understanding, if you’re drinking a quality Castilla y Léon wine, it was likely made by a rebel.
Our first stop was Aalto Bodegas, another tasty incarnation of Mariano Garcia’s second act, in a glass-fronted complex overlooking its vineyards. From there we went to Áster, a newer winery in a beautiful colonial-style mansion. We had a lunch of regional delicacies including lechazo (baby lamb fed only by milk; suckling pig, or cochinillo, is also famous here) and morcilla de burgos: black, fried disks of blood sausage mixed with rice.
Our final stop, ValSotillo, was my favorite. The two brothers who run it make their wine in 16th-century, hand-chiseled caves. And their Grand Reserva was so memorable, I made an hourlong detour another day to buy a bottle — a wholesale steal at 42 euros.
Vineyard of Dreams
Perhaps no place encapsulates the beauty of the region better than Abadía Retuerta, a 1,750-acre estate not far from Valladolid that I visited on Mr. Gonzáles-Calvo’s recommendation. For the cost of a wine tasting (30 euros), I got to walk through cloisters, a sun-dappled chapel and rows of manicured lavender at their five-star hotel in a renovated monastery. Then a guide in an SUV took me across the highway to its 500-acre vineyard to a view from the plateau of the entire valley. After the tour, you can hike the property for the rest of the day.
I lost count of the number of tapas places I tried out over 10 days in Valladolid and Seville, but I can safely say I ate more often, and often better, in Spain than anywhere else in the world. And that’s even while making up for lost time. It wasn’t until my second-to-last night in Ribera del Duero that I realized I’d been doing dinner all wrong.
While visiting Abadía Retuerta, I had asked the employees for recommendations on where to eat in my waning moments in Valladolid. They handed me a list of four tapas spots all on the central Plaza Mayor, each with a different specialty. I lamented that I didn’t have time to try them all. Looks of confusion and concern flashed around the room.
“Wait, but how many restaurants are you going to a night?” one of them asked.
One? I said with uncertainty.
The confusion turned to laughter. Why limit yourself to one restaurant a night? they asked. Spaniards get a glass of wine and their favorite tapa at one place and then move on for another round.
Every restaurant on their list required elbowing my way to a bar and eating while standing. Bar El Corcho had what may have been the best ham-and-cheese croquettas of the many I ate throughout the country. At Bar La Cárcava — which had one of the better wine lists — I had tostadas (toasts) covered in tuna and mayonnaise.
Taking it all to another level was Villa Paramesa, known for modern tapas with classic ingredients. I had a daily special: anchovies on a boat of grilled fish skin filled with a sweet onion jam that was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. A tapas education is something I’d be very happy building upon for the rest of my life.
Transit, by Train To get to Ribera del Duero you’ll likely go through Madrid, which has two major train stations. The one with the hourlong Renfe fast train to Valladolid is Madrid Chamartín. Getting there from the airport requires a short trip on a suburban Cercanías train. For a longer route without transfers, consider a 2-hour-45-minute Alsa busdirectly from Terminal 4 of the airport to Valladolid.
To get to Seville, though, I had to go through Madrid’s other train station, Puerta de Atocha, which is not at all close to Chamartín. Ask locals for help; the route was far easier than anything Google Maps and online train schedules told me.
Transit, by Car To get around wine country, you’ll need a car, unless you want to pay for a driver. I rented mine at the Valladolid train station (very easy!) to avoid the stress of driving from Madrid. The Roman aqueduct in Segovia and the castle on the hill in Peñafiel are worthy detours. Just remember to watch how much you drink at tastings.
Transit, by Bike I walked around Seville, but next time I’ll rent a bike. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and any kind of breeze you can create for yourself is worth it.
Tours If you’re traveling solo in wine country, your best bet is to befriend fellow tourists if you want to take a private tour like I did. Those tours usually operate with a minimum of two guests, so you have to tag along with someone else or pay for two slots. Skipping tours? Every winery requires a reservation; don’t just try to show up.
Tickets Buying tickets in advance online will help you skip the long lines, often in the sun, at La Giralda and Real Alcázar. At La Giralda, the website only let me buy a full day in advance, which didn’t work for me. But I went right when it opened and the line moved quickly.
Dining In Seville, table service involved spending half our meal trying to flag down waiters. I far preferred eating at bars: fast service, good company, tapa-sized portions. Wins all around.
Source: The New York Times